Saturday, November 4, 2017

48 Forest Certification-II. Early developments, FSC (Forest Stewardship Council)

Forest Certification seems, on the face of it, to be a straight-forward and virtuous concept, which should receive approval and support from everyone concerned about the fate of the world’s forests. Its basic principle is that the power of the market (i.e. consumers) is used to give an advantage to forest products that are reliably certified to be from ‘sustainably managed’ sources, and to discourage, or even keep out, products from sources that cannot be so certified. In actuality, forest certification has been a field with many controversies and active competition among different sets of proponents. In fact these competing developments have been denoted as the “Certification Wars” by David Humphreys in his wide-ranging survey of the subject of global forest governance (Humphreys, 2006). This amount of controversy, even passion, has come about because the matter is not restricted to just forest management, but has economic and social, public and corporate, policy implications that affect a wide range of interests, as described in the context of three case-study countries (Australia, Canada, UK) by Gale & Howard (2011).

In the traditional dispensation where conservation and administration of forests on a large scale is mainly a government (public sector) activity, the usual path to making forest management more sustainable and responsive to public opinion, would be for the government to update operative manuals, improve implementation in the field, and strengthen the regulatory framework by enacting tougher laws and putting more personnel on the ground.  This is the pattern followed in India in the past decades, through new legislation like the Forest Conservation Act (1980) and the strengthened laws for wildlife protection, environmental standards, and the Forest Rights Act (2006). Innovative governance models like Participatory or Joint Forest Management (JFM) were also developed under the impetus of the revise National Forest Policy of 1988, that gave priority to ecological and social (community) interests and needs over the demands of commercial forestry (sustained yield of timber).

On the world stage, however, such State-sponsored actions were adjudged not to be quite effective in meeting the aspirations of all the stake-holders involved, especially from so-called civil society (the activist NGOs and environmental pressure groups). The criticisms clustered around two focal interests. One was the desire to move forest management from ‘maximum sustained yield’ of commercial output of the most desirable timber species, to a more biodiversity-friendly and ecology-based holistic management. The other was the social interest, namely restoring the traditional or historic rights of local communities (especially the so-called indigenous peoples), whose forest and other natural resources had been (in this view) expropriated by colonial forces, or by ‘national’ governments under the control of dominant groups.

Interest in forest labeling and certification as a means of conservation of the world’s forests emerged during the 1980s. Initially, there was some hope that concerted effort through the normal inter-governmental organizations would contribute to the process. The efforts by international organizations like the ITTO and the United Nations conferences on environment and sustainable development, to get member countries to sign on to environmental and social safeguards and inspection routines in management of forest (especially tropical forests), were however seen as too tardy and inadequate in the face of the forces ranged against the natural forest: a case of too little, too late. As the available forums tended to become mere ‘talking shops’ and failed to initiate concrete action, the activists started losing faith in State actors, and started moving to the concept of an independent, ‘third-party’ institution for setting standards and procedures, and accrediting private agencies to carry out the appraisal and monitoring process.

Some of the inter-governmental activities or initiatives that failed to satisfy the forest conservationists include the Intergovernmental Panel on Forests (IPF), the Tropical Forestry Action Plan (TFAP), the International Tropical Timber  Organization (ITTO), the World Commission on Forests and Sustainable Development (WCFSD), the Intergovernmental Forum on Forests (IFF), and the United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) (Humphreys, op. cit.). One of the failures of the regular inter-governmental mechanism would appear to be the lack of decisive action in the ITTO during the 1980s and early 1990s to implement safeguards against unsustainable logging of tropical forests. A major instance of this heel-dragging was the proposal to set in place a certification and labeling system for tropical timber, which was stoutly opposed by the Malaysian government, with the support of the Indonesian and Cameroon delegates, in the 1989 Yokohama meeting of the organisation.

Another big disappointment would seem to be the failure to arrive at a strong enough Forest Declaration in the Rio Conference or UNCED, 1992 (the landmark United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). Developed countries put forward the idea that forests were a common heritage of all mankind, and hence the world community had the right and mandate to establish standards of sustainable use of these resources, including issues of tenure and rights of communities. To developing countries, these proposals smacked of a sinister effort to sneak in unacceptable non-tariff barriers to trade in tropical forest products, an unpleasant reminder of the colonial era. Naturally, they opposed them at the conceptual stage itself, insisting that these were domestic matters that should be left to the sovereign countries themselves. What came out of UNCED 1992 was a relatively “weak voluntary agreement” (Gale and Howard, p.28). known as the Forest Principles.

The failure of the international organizations and conferences to arrive at a legally-binding framework to eliminate unsustainable exploitation of tropical forests induced the environmental activists (the ECSOs – Environmental Civil Society Organisations, op. cit.) to shift their efforts to the private or voluntary side in the importing countries of the West. The idea was to develop their own standards and monitoring procedures through independent non-State agencies, and to canvas support for such a non-State labeling and certification system among importers and end-users in those countries. In essence, if the developing (exporting) countries were not prepared to play along, then the importing countries would impose their own set of rules, either through their governments and legal systems, or through market pressures. Once such an independent system gathered wide acceptance in the importing countries, then the exporting countries or companies (corporations) would in turn be forced to take on board the sustainability and social concerns, and work to obtain certification according to the norms imposed.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) system

The major pioneering framework for Forest Certification (FC) developed by the environmental activists (the ECSOs) in the West is called the Forest Stewardship Council, or the FSC. As mentioned above, prolonged lack of decisive action on the part of inter-government organizations like the ITTO, made the conservation activists and NGOs turn to the option of developing independent criteria and certifying mechanisms through non-governmental actors. In 1991, a working group of environmentalist NGOs convened by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), that included Greenpeace and the Rainforest Alliance, agreed to set up an independent certification scheme (for all forests, not just tropical) that was called the FSC, or Forest Stewardship Council (Humphreys, op.cit.). One special feature of the FSC is its constitutional structure: it is a confederation of the member organizations, rather than a central authority to which individual organization submit themselves. In this respect, it is more like a civil society institution rather than a controlling authority. Representation to all stakeholder interests is sought to be ensured by dividing the members into three groups, namely the social (civil society organization, forest workers, indigenous peoples’ groups, etc.), the economic (corporations, forest owners, retail sector) and the environmental (conservation NGOS etc.). Each group holds one-third of the vote shares, with “parity between developed and developing country stakeholders” (Humphreys, p.118).

What are the standards that the FSC system seeks to propagate (or, indirectly, impose)? In 1994, these were expressed in the form of nine principles for well-managed forests (the stronger label of sustainably-managed was avoided because of lack of consensus on its definition).  Later, a tenth principle was added to provide for plantations. (This was opposed by environmental NGOs like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, as they held that plantations do not sustain biodiversity, local rights, etc.). The following are, very briefly and in paraphrase, the ten Principles (the first, as can be seen, entails a certain circularity as it refers back to the very FSC Principles that are being exposited):
The 10 Principles of Forest Stewardship of the FSC (Humphreys, p.120):
1. Compliance with laws (domestic and international) and the FSC Principles
2. Tenure and use rights and responsibilities to be clearly defined and established
3. Indigenous peoples’ legal and customary rights to be recognized and respected
4. Community relations and workers’ rights to be maintained and enhanced
5. Efficient use for economic viability, environmental and social benefits
6. Conservation of biological diversity, water and soil, fragile ecosystems
7. Management plan of appropriate scale and scope to be written and maintained
8. Monitoring to be conducted of management, social and environmental impacts
9. High conservation value forests to be specially maintained
10. Plantations to be planned and managed in consonance with these Principles

The detailed original statements of these Principles are more detailed and nuanced, and should be consulted for enlightenment; these are very condensed paraphrases. These Principles are further elaborated in a list of Criteria (46 Criteria for Principles 1-9, and 9 Criteria for Principle 10, as of 2006), which describe the performance standards expected of the forest management to be considered fit for certification. In order to attain uniformity in assessment and certification, the FSC does provide an option to develop national or regional guidelines to set the bar for each Principle and its constituent Criteria. To achieve this consensus, FSC supports “national initiatives” and “national” working groups that involve a wide range of stakeholders and interest groups. The certificates are of three levels: ’pure wood’, ‘mixed wood’, and ‘controlled wood’, depending on the degree of control exercised by the company of the sources and chain-of-custody of the material/s. Incidentally, this supports the suggestion made in the introductory section for a series of graded certificates, each indicating stronger control of management practices and satisfaction of the criteria specified by the FSC process.

The certification process entails actual visits by the certifying agency to the field, verification of records, interaction with stakeholders on the ground, etc. The FSC does not itself issue certificates, but instead authorizes specific independent agencies to do the assessment and issue the certificates. Thus FSC acts as an accreditation authority, rather than a certifying agency. Gale & Haward (2011, p.62) give a list of FSC-accredited certifying agencies, which interestingly are all based in Europe and North America (at the time of their writing).

An interesting issue is the relation of the FSC Principles and Criteria (P&C) framework to the so-called Criteria & Indicators (C&I) for Sustainable Forest Management (SFM). These latter are the outcome of a different process during the 1990s, under the auspices of international bodies. The International Timber Trade Organization (ITTO) has a set of “Guidelines for the Sustainable Management of Natural Tropical Forests” (July 1992), and another set for the “Establishment and Sustainable Management of Planted Tropical Forests” (1993).  According to Humphreys (2006, p.119), “Nine regional C+I processes have been developed that between them cover 150 countries and 85 per cent of the world’s forest area”. This should not of course be taken to mean that this much of the forest is actually compliant with the respective C&I.  For instance, it includes the “Bhopal, India” process (December 1999), consisting of “8 Criteria and 49 Indicators at the national level for dry forests in Asia”, but to my knowledge, these have not yet become a legal or officially endorsed framework for anything. This situation, of course, is probably a cause for concern among academics and NGOs at the tardiness in India’s C&I process.

Academics make much of the distinction between the FSC Principles & Criteria  (for “good management”) versus the Criteria & Indicators for “sustainable management” (Humphreys, p.119). Humphreys finds that among the nine C&I processes he has listed, seven criteria of SFM are common:
1. Extent of forest resources
2. Forest health and vitality
3. Productive functions of forests
4. Biological diversity
5. Protective functions of forests
6. Socioeconomic benefits and needs
7. Legal, policy and institutional framework (Humphreys, p.119).

Humphrey finds significant “conceptual and practical” differences between the two sets of criteria. He does not see the SFM C&I scheme as useful to certify attainment of standards; indeed “As none of the C+I schemes have normative benchmarks, they provide evidence neither of sustainability nor of unsustainability” (Humphreys, p.119). One wonders, then, what the SFM frameworks are worth. He sees the SFM framework as regional and national level processes, whereas FSC is a global-level process but applicable at the FMU level. However, this does not appear to me to be such a critical difference, as the FSC criteria also have to be obviously tailored to local situations, and conversely the SFM framework could well be translated into achievable standards at the FMU level. He sees the SFM framework as used mainly by governments and policy-makers, and the FSC framework as used mainly by NGOs to provide market signals. This again appears to me a somewhat specious argument, as national players also have stepped in to provide their alternate frameworks to FSC certification, whereas FSC itself may be seen as a strong policy-level intervention by certain organizations and individuals for a certain purpose (using market pressures to reduce forest degradation in exporting countries).

My own view is that they are all of a family, and will influence one another, whether intentionally or not. At the forest management unit (FMU) level, it will obviously be illogical to have different sets of guidelines and standards for the same concern and the same operations just to satisfy different certifying schemes. Field managers require a clear set of guidelines and operating instructions.  They would like to work (to the extent they find feasible) to the more demanding and onerous of the criteria from either of the schemes, to derive the maximum advantage from the efforts (remember the joke about the Japanese firm which enclosed 0.01% defective parts separately, as per the American buyer’s quality standards!).

Countries like India have their own legal and policy frameworks for natural resource sectors like forests and forestry. The problem with the FSC scheme appears to be that it calls into question the authority of government and the principle of national sovereignty, as both the standards and the actual certification process are in the hands of independent (private, usually overseas) players. Given the experience with donor agencies and their consultants, who often seem to have a cozy arrangement of hopping between the two (NGOs and government, both in the Western Hemisphere), national governments in the ‘south’ are naturally suspicious of certification schemes like the FSC as yet another way of taking control of the erstwhile colonies.

At the national level (in India and elsewhere), there has been a long-drawn out process of developing a standards and assessment scheme for sustainable (or, for that matter, merely “good”) forest management. This includes both the existing framework of the national forest policy, forest and wildlife law, working plan code, and financial and administrative systems of the country, and further embellishments over and above these in emulation of the FSC standards, especially as regards government forests.

In the following sections, we shall discuss alternatives to the FSC in the international sphere, some individual country responses (USA, Canada, Australia, and Malaysia), and the progress achieved by the FSC and competitor schemes. We will also look at the related processes in India (the “Bhopal process” for C&I, and National Committee proceedings for Forest Certification). We will then close with a discussion on the options open in India in regard to Forest Certification.


Dilip Kumar, P.J. 2014. Managing India’s Forests. Village Communities, Panchayati Raj Institutions and the State. Monograph No. 32, Institute for Social & Economic Change, Nagarbhavi, Bangalore. Posted at

FRI. 2012. National  Working Plan Code. Draft prepared by Forest Research Institute Dehradun (Indian Council of Forestry Research & Education). Ministry of Environment & Forests, Government of India.

Gale, Fred and Marcus Howard. 2011. Global Commodity Governance. State Responses to Sustainable Forest and Fisheries Certification. Palgrave Macmillan UK.

Government of India. 2014. National Working Plan Code 2014. Ministry of Environment & Forests. Downloadable copy available at

Higman, Sophie, James Mayers, Stephen Bass, Neil Judd and Ruth Nussbaum. 2006. The Sustainable Forestry Handbook. Second Edition, First South Asian Edition. The Earthscan Forestry Library. Earthscan Publications Ltd., London.

Humphreys, David. 2006. Logjam. Deforestation and the Crisis of Global Governance. Earthscan Publications Ltd., London.

Kotwal, P.C., M.D.Omprakash & Dharmendra Dugaya. 2008. Manual: Criteria and Indicators for Sustainable Forest Management in India: An Operational Framework. Operational Strategy for Sustainable Forestry Development with Community Participation in India: IIFM-ITTO Research Project. Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal (India).

Lele, Sharachchandra and Ajit Menon. 2014. Democratizing Forest Governance in India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi.

MTCC. 2009. The First Ten Years 1999-2009. Written by Chew Lye Teng, Harninder Singh, Yong Ten Koong. Malaysian Timber Certifcation Council. Kuala Lumpur.

Upton, Christopher and Stephen Bass. 1995. The Forest Certification Handbook. Earthscan Publications Ltd., London.

Yadav, Manmohan, P.C.Kotwal & B.L.Menaria. 2007. Forest Certification. A Tool for Sustainable Forest Management. Centre for Sustainable Forest Management & Forest Certification: IIFM-ITTO Project. Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal (India).


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